The United States needs to develop a national strategy to adapt to climate change, according to a new report commissioned by the White House.

"Even with mitigation efforts, climate change will continue to unfold for decades due to the long atmospheric lifetime of past greenhouse-gas emissions and the gradual release of excess heat that has built up in the oceans," reads the report. "Climate change adaptation is thus a necessity for our nation and the world."

Requested by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the report draws on discussions at a two-day conference last spring that brought together scientists, officials from city and state governments, business leaders and representatives of federal agencies.

The analysis acknowledges that several U.S. cities and regions have taken the lead in examining how to adapt to sea level rise, changing rain and snowfall patterns, heat waves and other effects of climate change.

It recommends that the federal government move aggressively to support those efforts by developing a national adaptation strategy to coordinate planning and exchange information between federal agencies and local governments.

"A lot of communities in our country are struggling with how to plan to ensure reliable access to food, water and other things in their community in the face of a changing climate," said Jack Fellows, vice president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which organized the conference that produced the report. "There's really not a clear federal strategy in this area."

That was evident at the National Climate Adaptation Summit in Washington last May, where Chicago Department of Environment official Joyce Coffee described the problems her city's adaptation effort was facing.

Wanted: a common 'climate portal'
"We did our own impacts analysis ... [and] we had an economic risk assessment that was performed, and put together a list of must-do early actions," she said then. "But if the federal government had been involved, I think things would have been much different -- and better."

With federal help, Coffee said, the city might have easy access to resources to update its projections of how its climate will shift in coming decades. But as of May, it had no plan to revisit the work completed a few years ago by scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, despite subsequent advances in climate science.

To solve such problems, the new report recommends creating a federal "climate portal" to provide one-stop access to climate data and projections compiled by federal agencies. The analysis also says the administration should develop a list of "best practices" to help guide local and state governments and business sectors in drawing up their own adaptation plans.

That's especially important since many decisions that will affect how communities fare in a changing climate will be made locally, said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment.

"Every day in cities, there are going to be choices made that affect plans on the scale of decades to centuries," she said. They include everything from changes in zoning laws to spending on infrastructure like road networks and water treatment plants.

Holdren sees adaptation-only backers as 'smoking dope'
President Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, said the report's message is one the administration welcomes.

"We really understand simply from the science that we have no choice whatsoever between mitigation and adaptation. We have to do both," said Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Those who argue that the world's capacity to adapt to climate change eliminates the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions are "smoking dope," he added.

Holdren's deputy Shere Abbott said a federal task force will deliver recommendations for a national adaptation strategy to President Obama "in about a week."

Representatives from more than 20 federal agencies and White House offices are working on the report, she said, offering a preview of their recommendations.

"A key premise of this commitment is that adaptation planning needs to be informed by a continuing scientific, sound assessment of the impacts of a changing climate and the effectiveness of preparations and response options," Abbott said.

The idea is to provide dedicated funding to the U.S. Global Change Research Program to conduct such assessments, which would then form a base for government and the private sector to plan for the effects of climate change.

The federal government released its last national assessment of climate change impacts last year, Abbott said, and has begun working on a sequel due in 2013.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500